Questions on Corona impeachment trial | Inquirer Opinion
As I See It

Questions on Corona impeachment trial

/ 11:12 PM January 17, 2012

What will happen if Chief Justice Renato Corona goes to the Supreme Court to ask for a restraining order against his impeachment trial in the Senate? Can the justices be totally objective, since it is their own chief who is on trial? Isn’t this conflict of interest? Ordinarily, judges and justices in this situation inhibit themselves from a case. Or the other side asks them to inhibit themselves. But if all 12 associate members appointed by President Gloria  Macapagal-Arroyo (the same block who earlier voted, along with Corona, to issue the TRO against the hold-departure order of the Department of Justice and allow GMA to leave the country and escape prosecution) inhibited themselves, there would be no Supreme Court left.

And if the Court issues a TRO against the Senate trial, will the Senate obey it? The senators have held that the impeachment and trial of impeachable officials are the sole prerogative of Congress and the courts cannot meddle in it. In fact, the Senate has its own rules on the conduct of an impeachment trial which are different from the Rules of Court followed by the judiciary.

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What if the Senate does not recognize the TRO? What can the Court do to enforce it? It can cite the senators for contempt, but how would it enforce it? The tribunal has no police powers to enforce its orders.

Of course, Corona and his lawyers can boycott the Senate trial. But the Senate can allow the prosecution to present its evidence and witnesses ex parte, meaning the defense will be unable to counter the prosecution’s evidence, cross examine its witnesses, and present its own evidence and witnesses. Without any defense witnesses and evidence, the senators have no choice but to convict Corona.

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But say, the Senate declares Corona guilty and removes him from office, how will it enforce its verdict? What if Corona continues to go to his office, issues orders, attends Court deliberations and vote on decisions? Will his orders and votes have any legal effect? Will they have an effect on the administration of justice? Of course, they will have an effect. It will result in confusion. Can the lower courts disobey orders of Corona? If they do, what will happen to the judges? Again, the Court can cite them for contempt, but how will it enforce that?

And what about the executive branch, how can it restore order in the administration of justice? Should it take steps to enforce the order of the Senate to remove Corona as chief justice? It is the branch of government that has police powers. What can it do to enforce the Senate decision, aside from carrying Corona bodily out of the Supreme Court building and posting guards at the door 24 hours a day to prevent his re-entry? Should the Executive involve itself in the conflict between Congress and the Court?

Of course, it should. It is its duty and responsibility to restore order, but how is it going to do that?

Those are all hypothetical questions but they are likely to materialize. As the prosecution team said after the trial session last Monday, it seems that the defense team is preparing to go to the Supreme Court to get a TRO. Lead defense counsel retired Justice Serafin Cuevas is insisting on having a pretrial to find out if the congressmen had “verified” the impeachment complaint before signing it, as the Constitution mandates.

All defendants are entitled to a pretrial, Cuevas said, a verification is a condition imposed by the Constitution itself. Because of the very short period (three hours) between the issuance of the impeachment complaint and the signing by 188 members, it is impossible for all of them to have “verified” it, he said.

The prosecution said that the Constitution provides that the “trial should proceed forthwith” and a pretrial is not a trial.

As for verification, the prosecution argued that when the congressmen affixed their signatures to the complaint, that means they are satisfied and agree with it and implies that they have “verified” it.

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And when the House endorsed it to the Senate, the latter has to accept it. There is always the presumption of regularity on all official acts unless proven otherwise.

That is why the prosecution team, because of the insistence of the defense team to have a pretrial, suspects that it is laying the groundwork for elevating the case to the Supreme Court to ask for a TRO. Obviously, they believe that the tribunal being home ground, the Corona defense has an advantage.

As this is being written, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile is expected to rule against the defense motions. I presume the defense expected this, too, but still insisted on the pretrial. They are preparing to go up to the Supreme Court, the prosecution suspects. When that happens, all the above questions come to the fore. What are the answers? Only the concerned people know.

A few more questions: If Corona is acquitted, what will happen? Of course, he would stay as chief justice. But would that mean bad blood between the President and Congress, on the one hand, and the Supreme Court on the other? Would the three branches of government be perpetually sniping at one another? Would they still be able to work together? Can the justices still be completely objective in deciding cases against the executive branch and against the members of Congress?

After the dirty linen is exposed at the trial, would Corona be damaged goods? Would the people still trust him or the Supreme Court? Right now, his trust rating in the opinion polls is very low. Would it dip further?

Because of the constitutional crisis that it may create, this question is often asked: Is the impeachment and trial of the Chief Justice good or bad for the country? As I see it, whatever happens, it will be good for the country. The message will be sent to the members of the judiciary that they better institute reforms or the same thing will happen to them.

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TAGS: corona impeachment, featured columns, legal questions, opinion, Senate Trial
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